Patine Ancienne

Rural France is home to many artists who make garden pots.  Each one has their own style and finishes, most of which are based on designs and shapes dating back to the 18th century.  Detroit Garden Works will have a substantial and wide ranging collection of French terra cotta come spring.  This has everything to do with Rob’s willingness to travel.  It is not possible to shop these pots from a catalogue, a website, or over the phone.  You have to go.  To see them in person.  Anything you see in the shop Rob has seen in person. 

This modest showroom gives an overview of this artist’s point of view.  Much of what Rob bought here has to be custom made.  This style, in this finish, or this color.  That style in this size.  How he shops is much more rigorous than what this picture would suggest.  When a 40 foot container of terra cotta from France arrives, it will be an edited collection, with a point of view.  There will be multiples, with careful consideration to size.  There will be a small representation from certain potteries whose output is limited.   

This particular pottery features very unusual finishes on their terra cotta.  Rob hears that no outsiders are ever permitted in the studio.  This particular poterie is represented by a broker Rob met in Paris a few years ago.  She arranged for a visit and consulted with him on his order.  She will be supervising the manufacture, will inspect all of the pots prior to shipment, and will arrange for pots to be readied shipment.  Multiple orders will need to be consolidated, and packed into a container dropped at the poterie with the most substantial order.  The most important issue-the finishes.  She will look every pot over.   

Many of the poteries have an interpretive finish they call a patine ancienne.  There are many very old French terra cotta pots still in use; the climate is mild, and pots can be left outdoors all winter.  Old glazed French pots are characterized by how much of the glaze has been shed from exposure to weather.  The old pots are priced at a premium.  I have but a few truly antique French terra cotta pots.  Interpretive finishes-some are great, some are overwrought. 

Rob tells me that he has an interest in the patine ancienne.  Patina refers to a surface condition which has acquired a certain look or color or texture from age.  Antique stone urns from England may have large colonies of lichens and mosses that verify their age.  Though he has an interest in aged surfaces, he prefers some contemporary interpretations over others.     

This particular poterie features finishes that he likes.  They have a feeling of age which is subtle.  Not too hard hitting.  When I first saw these pots in his pictures, I was sure I was looking at vintage pots.   

We have bought many containers of pots from the Poterie Madeleine over the years; we have sold all but a very few.  Their high gloss glazes in jaune, (yellow), vert (green), flamme (green and brown flames), and blu lavande (this is a hard color to describe-it is blue and lavender mixed) were beautiful. They were the classic vase Anduze I always associate with French terra cotta. The ownership of the poterie has changed since we first shopped there; the pots are different-the business is different.  Madame Pellier is no longer there.  I have many good memories of dealing with her over an order.  The new pots-they are too hurriedly made, says Rob.  He tells me we need to move on-so be it. The classic vase Anduze pot pictured above-the surface is beautifully different than anything we have ever had before.  

This poterie has captured his interest.  The colors and finishes defy description.  They are not overwrought.  There is ample evidence of the human hand.  These trays-he laid them on the floor to study them.  The poterie that makes them have studied equally.   

If you are a gardener, you have a relationship with clay pots.  The simplest machine made terra cotta pot is a friendly home to a plant.  That fired earth breathes. It promotes good root growth.  It soaks up water freely; that water can evaporate just as quickly.  This tray speaks much more eloquently to the clay earth from which it was made than a machine made pot.  The decoration is simple, and strong.  I am sure when the time comes that I can pick up this tray in my hands, it will have weight, and heft which is as much physical as it is visual.  The finish is subtle and moody.  I could live with this. I might not be able to live without it. 

This interpretation of patine anciennne is beautifully rendered.  I am sure the work of it is lengthy.  Rob purchased from the poterie’s available objects.  He placed a very large special order, which we do not expect to be completed until well into November.  Every piece will be well worth the wait.  Great garden pots-Rob has made a life’s work of this.  What he has brought my way-priceless.

The Making Of The Pots

What I know about making terra cotta pots wouldn’t fill a teacup, but I have pictures.  These first four are from a book Rob bought for me in France 15 years ago.  “Terres Vernissees” by Christine Lahaussois and Beatrice Pannequin is an overview of the art of French glazed ceramics dating back to the 16th century.  This method of making large pots with wood armatures wrapped in rope is a centuries old technique.  The form begins with a series of wood verticals that describe the height of the piece, and the diameter of the top and the bottom.

Multiple wood ribs that describe the overall shape of the pot are fixed to the central verticals.  Keep in mind that the pots are made top side down.  Heavy rope is carefully wrapped around the wood ribs.  The ribs and the rope create a template for the finished shape of the pot.  Wet clay is very heavy, and very sticky.  To throw a pot of great size takes multiple passes. Only so much of the finished height of the pot can be done before the pot needs to rest, and the clay become leather hard.  Then the next layer can be added.  A giant pot thrown on a wheel all at once would collapse under its own weight.  It is much more efficient to press the sticky clay into the rope.  The form keep the clay from succumbing to gravity.

These pictures detail how the wet clay is pressed into the rope covered form.  The texture you see here-the finger marks of the person making this pot.  The evidence of the human hand-this is what these pots are all about.  These large pots have been made this way for centuries in France.  I think it is of utmost importance that this history be known, and appreciated.  I appreciate modern technology, and the important news of the moment, but there is more out there.  When I plant a beautiful handmade pot, the planting is as much about the the history of the making, and the maker of the pot, as it is about the plants.

Once the wet clay is pressed into the ropes, the wheel turns, and the surface is smoothed.  The wood form is collapsed once the clay becomes leather hard.  The clay is cut, and the form removed.  The rope? The rope is removed before the pot is fired, saved, and used again.


Rob took this picture 2 days ago.  That the construction of the giant vases has not changed for several centuries-this is very important to me.  How so?  The handmade French pots that will come to the shop in 2 months will have been made by a person, whose hand, skill and judgment will enchant me.  The history is long, the commitmment-just as long.   People who make extraordinary things-I value them.  I do what I can to support this industry, and am always sorry when I see a poterie close.  The making of the pots is an art I would like to see endure.
The finished pots in my shop do not tell this story.  Yes, they have beautiful shapes and graceful curves.  They are heavy, solid-very well made.  With proper care, they will last better than a lifetime.  But the story of how they are made makes for a story any passionate gardener would want to hear.

The finished pots-they need to rest.

Once they dry, the pots will be fired.  The rope burns, but the pattern of that rope will be fired forever into the interior of the pot.  These pots are ready to be planted.  But please note that the interior surface is every bit as beautiful as the outside.

Some of the pots get decoration.  Once the clay is leather hard, a potter will work hard to create and affix that garland, that medallion to the body of the pot.

Giant pots drying have supports.  These supports are not so fancy, just useful.  Simply useful.  Gravity can drag down wet clay.  These not so fancy supports keeps the wet clay aloft.

The attic is a perfect drying room.  Imagine that every handmade French pot gets hauled to the attic to dry.  There are a lot of steps, and a lot of hands that come together to make these pots.  When they are thoroughly dry, they will be fired.  From these hands to yours-Rob does this part.

6:56 AM

Rob’s plane headed for Paris took off from Detroit at 3:30 yesterday.  At 6:56 am our time, he was about to land in the south of France. This picture-via his iPhone. This view of the coastline-magnifique.  I am sure he has plans for the rest of the day that do not include sleep.  Shopping like this is not for the faint of heart.  His very first buying trip to France in 1993 he managed without a phone, or any help from a computer or a Garmin.  I think he was in France for 3 days before he found a phone he could use to call me.  The connection was so poor all I got from the conversation was that he was in France, and ok. 

The trip was loosely planned around what I read in books, and what I could glean from French design magazines.  There was so little information readily available pertaining to European sources of ornament for the garden, that these early trips were as much about exploration as they were about buying.  He had dinner with what he could find at a gas station, and hoped to find lodging when it got dark.  In his 3 weeks overseas, I may have talked to him two or three times.  I knew next to nothing about what he bought, until the container was delivered, and opened.  That first collection-stunning.

There would be pictures, once he got home, and his 35mm film could be developed.  Many of them related to his experience and exploration of the French landscape.  He travelled extensively, absorbing as much as he could of what he saw.  Garden ornament represents the culture, environment and landscape from which it comes.   

There are other stories from those early trips.  It was a month later that he told me he was lost in the Swiss Alps in the middle of the night, trying to drive from Italy to France.  There were almost no road signs, and the major road had a large tunnel that was permanently closed;  it had collapsed.  This he did not discover until he was 100 feet from the tunnel entrance.  He saw no one else travelling that night; somehow he managed to get to France. Like I said, he is an explorer of a very special sort.

As poor as our clues were, Rob took the situation in hand once he was there.  There were poteries producing garden pots the likes of which I had never seen, save in Cote Sud, the French magazine.  Once there were names and places put to the few pictures we had seen, he was ready to shop.  That he spoke not one word of French, he did fine.  Rob has a way of making friends first, and doing business later. 

Though the landscape and culture of France is very different than ours, the history of their gardens is very much part of the language of ours. Gardeners value that history.  A garden table of age and presence such as this one can organize an entire garden. If you are an afficianado of classical landscape, a table such as this would enchant your eye.   

There are many poteries in the south of France, each producing its pots with native clay, and distinctively regional designs.  Many of the poteries have been producing pots for hundreds of years.  Ancient gardens were very much about utility.  Olive trees and citrus were grown in pots, not to mention  herbs.  Olive jars were just that; containers for olive oil.  But the French have a way of endowing the every day business of living with great beauty and style.   

At this end of this first trip to France, Rob did manage to reach me by phone.  He was interested in a sculpture which had been exhibited at the Paris Salon in 1883.  The cast iron sculpture came with a stone pedestal that had been hand carved especially for the sculpture.  It was breathtaking in more than one way.  The purchase of this sculpture would take more than half of our entire budget.  When he told me that, I hung up on him.  Three days later he called back, did I wish to speak to the dealer about the provenance of the piece?  Needless to say, he persuaded me to buy the sculpture.  It took 3 years to find a buyer, but the three years it sat just inside the front door of the shop said everything about our point of view about the landscape.  It was a defining purchase in a lot of ways.  

Not everything he bought would be that costly, but shopping overseas, and shipping from Europe is complicated and expensive.  These French pots are handmade, not made by machine.  They had to be crated prior to shipping.  That became part of the price.  Lots of things enable Rob to shop more efficiently now.  Making beautiful things available to keen gardeners is a passion of Rob’s; visiting the shop makes that clear.  

I have no idea what Rob will speak for; this is what he does, and he does a beautiful job it. I have nothing to add to this, except my interest and support. I do not experience the shop how my clients do; I come here every day, and have done so for 15 years. I have worked with him for almost 20 years now.  But when he leaves on a European shopping trip, I look at what is already here with fresh appreciation, and great anticipation for what he will bring to the shop next.